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Paul Soldner, the Claremont ceramic artist who discovered American raku, dies at 89

January 4, 2011 |  9:00 am

Soldner Paul Soldner, the ceramicist who discovered American raku and taught for decades at Scripps College, died at his home in Claremont on Monday at age 89.

What is American raku? The American Museum of Ceramic Art founder David Armstrong, a former student and longtime friend of Soldner, who has also collected his work, says he was there when Soldner hit upon the technique in 1960.

Long used for tea ceremony ware in Japan, raku traditionally involves firing a pot in a kiln at lower-than-usual temperatures, only to remove it and plunge it in water (or green tea, as the origin story goes) while still red-hot. American raku involves "smoking" the piece instead, by plunging it into combustible materials such as sawdust or newspapers instead of water.

According to Armstrong, Soldner discovered this technique while preparing for a demonstration at a local crafts fair. "Paul was a showman and wanted to make the event entertaining. But if you've ever been to a ceramics studio, you know it takes a long time to fire a piece on a kiln," Armstrong said.

So Soldner tried his hand at raku: making an ad-hoc kiln out of a 50-gallon oil drum lined with concrete, formulating the right clay and glazes for it and choosing a fish pond nearby for plunging the ceramics into cold water. But one bowl didn't make it to the water. Rushing from the kiln to the pond with tongs in hand, Soldner accidentally dropped the bowl in a bed of pepper-tree leaves, where it started a small fire. The result was visually arresting, with the pot picking up the imprint of the leaves and acquiring a smoky or iridescent sheen.

Soldner, who embraced the beauty of the accidental and unpredictable, saw it as a fundamentally Japanese aesthetic. "In the West, there is this emphasis on perfection. Something that cracks is considered a mistake," he told a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in 1997, adding that the same "flaw" in the East might be called a "crackle." "It's no different than the approach to taming the outdoors. In the West, when you make a garden, you throw the rocks out. In the East, you bring the rocks back in."

Click here for the full obituary on Paul Soldner.

Peter Voulkos, 78; Reinvented Ceramics

-- Jori Finkel